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Illustrated Corvette Series No. 139 1956 265 V-8 Corvette
"Duntov's Daytona Flyer"
Now that the ’09 ZR1 is finally in the hands of customers, I thought it would be fun to take a look back at the first factory-supported racing Corvette. The ZR1 is a wonder of aluminum, titanium, carbon fiber, and computers. By contrast, the ‘56 Daytona Speed Weeks Corvette was born of cast iron, steel, fiberglass, and pure guts.
Appearance aside, the first-generation Vette was far from a true sports car. The car’s steel perimeter frame was essentially the same as that of a regular Chevy sedan. What wasn’t obvious before Duntov started pushing the car’s performance was that without a steel body, the Corvette was rather flexible. When pushed hard in corners, the car understeered heavily and was challenging to control. Thanks to friends in high places in GM—namely, Ed Cole and Harley Earl—and the arrival of the ‘55 Thunderbird, the Corvette was given a second chance for ’56 with a completely restyled body. Clearly, the stylists were influenced by the stunning ‘54 Mercedes 300SL. The new design had forward-leaning front fenders, regular headlights, a cleaned-up tail section, and Mercedes-like hood bulges. Chevy’s 265ci V-8, new in ‘55, gave the Corvette a much-needed power boost.
To demonstrate the new V-8’s capabilities, Duntov drove a specially prepared ‘56 Chevy in the Pikes Peak hillclimb event. The car turned in a record time of 17 minutes, 24.05 seconds. During a party after the event, Duntov suggested to Cole that they show the world how fast a ’57 Corvette could go. When Cole inquired as to how just how fast that was, Duntov replied that the car could perhaps touch 150 mph. Although stock examples could only hit 135 mph at the time, Cole liked the challenge and made Duntov his Corvette-racing field commander.
Duntov started off with a ‘54 Corvette as his test mule. He knew that accomplishing his goal would require two things: more power and improved aerodynamics. First, he removed the stock windshield and built a small windscreen. A tonneau cover was then added to the passenger side, and a fairing with a long fin was added to the rear deck behind the driver’s head. Calculating that the car needed an additional 30 hp, Duntov revised the V-8’s camshaft to provide the required performance boost. This was the beginning of the famous “Duntov Cam” option. All of Duntov’s tricks worked beautifully. At GM’s Phoenix test track, Duntov personally drove the mule to a top speed of 163 mph. The green light for the upcoming Daytona race was on.
A month before the big event, in January 1956, Duntov took his mule car, fitted it with ’56 body panels, and blasted the Daytona beach with a 150.583-mph run. In February, he arrived with three race-prepared Corvettes—the mule car and two slightly modified stockers—all painted white with blue stripes and side coves. The mule now had cone fairings over the headlights and taping over almost the entire front grille opening and fender vents. The other two cars were similarly equipped, with tonneau covers and taped-up fender vents. Each Vette was powered by a 265 small-block with the experimental Duntov Cam, special 10.3:1-compression heads, and an output of 255 hp. But here’s the kicker: Because they were running on packed beach sand, the cars were equipped with snow tires!
Duntov drove the mule, while former Mercedes team driver John Fitch and airplane racer Betty Skelton drove the two other cars. There were two parts to the event: standing-mile acceleration and top speed. Ford and Chevy were in the midst of a speed war at the time. The Ford entry was Chuck Dalgh’s modified Thunderbird. In the standing mile, Fitch’s Corvette came in Third behind Dalgh’s 86.872-mph T-Bird. Duntov, meanwhile, was the fastest in the modified class with a 89.753-mph run. But the real bragging rights were reserved for the top-speed event. The Dalgh T-Bird didn’t compete in the top-speed runs, and the Corvettes romped. Fitch won the production-sports-car class with a top speed of 145.543-mph, and Skelton came in Second with a 137.773-mph run. Duntov had the fastest time in the modified class with a 147.300-mph run. It should be noted that there were strong headwinds at Daytona that kept the Corvettes from passing the 150-mph mark.
The event was so successful, GM gave Duntov the go-ahead to build three more cars for the 12-hour Sebring race, just six weeks after Daytona. John Fitch was assigned the unrealistic task of preparing the cars. While the Corvettes performed well under their potential at Sebring, they managed to finish their first sports-car competition and set the stage for bigger things to come. A print ad showed one of the Sebring cars in the pits, dirty and race-worn, with the driver exiting the cockpit. The headline read, “The Real McCoy.” And that’s how the Corvette racing legend began. - K. Scott Teeters
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Illustrated Corvette Series No. 4 1956 Corvette
This time they got it right and everyone noticed! The 1956 Corvette was truly a pivotal model. At Chevrolet, every car has to pay its way or die. The 1955 Corvette hit an all-time low sales volume of only 674 units. Although not "big" numbers by GM standards, Chevrolet sold 3467 Corvettes in 1956, enough to buy a future for the fiberglass car that many wanted to see die!
Writer Karl Ludvigsen from Sportscar Illustrated made the statement that would forever be the Corvette credo: "The only true American production sports car." What turned the tide was the fact that the Corvette now had the performance to back up its great looks.
All of the '50s comforts were there: roll-up windows, bucket seats, and a quality AM radio. By far, the best part was under the hood. The 265 V8 came in two versions. The base engine, single four-barrel was rated at 210 hp, and the optional dual four-barrel engine was rated at 255 hp. The optional version had high compression 9.25:1 pistons, a special camshaft, and a cast aluminum intake manifold. With the close ratio 3-speed manual transmission, the '56 Corvette would go 0-60 mph in just 7.3 seconds. Quarter-mile times were 15.9 seconds at 91 mph. Gas mileage averaged 12 miles per gallon. With the right stuff in the '56 Vette and "more" planned for '57, Zora Arkus-Duntov set out to prove the Corvette on the track.
At the 1956 Daytona Speed Week, the car made an impressive two-way run of 150.583 mph, with Zora himself at the wheel! With John Fitch driving during competition, a Corvette was fastest in the Modified class with an average of 145.54 mph. Even Carroll Shelby was quoted as saying, "Racing was the thing that actually saved the Corvette." At the Sebring 12 Hour race, Corvettes placed ninth overall and first in-class. From here on, racing would for- ever define the Corvette.
With the limitations of the previous GM Motorama car in the past, even Road & Track blessed the '56 Corvette by saying, "The new Corvette is as good to excellent compared to other dual purpose sports cars." Little did they know that things would get even better in '57! - K. Scott Teeters
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Illustrated Corvette Series No. 6 1956 SR-2 Racing Corvette
It was as if the Gods of Fortune had smiled upon the Corvette! The 1956 Corvette was so well received that GM executives felt comfortable enough to indulge themselves with special "racer" versions of their new darling. Thus, the SR-2 Corvette was born. "SR" had several meanings: "Special Racing," "Sports Racing" or "Sebring Racer." These terms referred to the '56 Sebring effort that got so much attention. Three SR-2 Corvettes were built.
The first SR-1 was built for then president of GM, Harlow Curtice. This was a styling exercise over a 265, 3-speed Corvette off the assembly line. The car was never intended to be a real racer. Its distinguishing feature was the symmetrical low fin in the middle of its decklid. The extra trim made it look more like a showcar than a race car.
The second SR-2 was built for GM vice president Harley Earl's son Jerry! But this SR-2 had real teeth. Under the hood was a 265 with a 3-speed manual gearbox. The running gear and chassis featured quick ratio steering, stiff springs and shocks, a limited slip rear, oversized brakes with cooling scoops and Halibrand knock-off wheels on racing tires. Dual exhausts exited just in front of the rear wheels.
The interior had extra instruments, power windows and stock seats. There also was a fire extinguisher, a wood-trimmed steering wheel and a radio! The body of the SR-2 had some interesting changes. The nose had been extended and louvers were added to the hood. The side coves had functioning scoops to cool the brakes. Two short windscreens replaced the stock windshield. Centered on the trunklid was a short single fin. This was later replaced with the tall "Mitchell-style" high fin and roll bar.
Bill Mitchell, GM chief of styling, had the third SR-2 built. Although the second and third cars look the same other than the fin, the Mitchell car is three inches wider! The car was also made lighter by removing nearly all frills and using racing bucket seats.
On the race track, Earl's SR-2 was the most successful of the three. While sponsored by Nickey Chevrolet, the SR-2 won the SCCA B-Production national title in 1958. Happily, all three SR-2 Corvettes have been fully restored and are accounted for. - K. Scott Teeters